Sara Mardanbigi and Edgar Rico, owners of the genre-defining Nixta Taqueria restaurant in Austin, Texas, grew up more than 1,000 miles apart. Their families immigrated to America from opposite corners of the world. But the two have found solace in the same food: rice pudding.
For Ms. Mardanbigi, 33, the treat took the form of sholeh zard, an Iranian rice pudding typically made with saffron, rose water, cinnamon and cardamom, and often served on religious holidays. (In Farsi, “shol” roughly translates to cowardly and “zard” means yellow.) She looked forward to Shab-e Yalda, the Persian celebration of the winter solstice, when her family and the small community of Irano- Americans living in Springdale, Ark., Traded for sholeh zard jackpots. Ms. Mardanbigi ate it for breakfast for weeks.
Mr. Rico, 32, enjoyed his grandmother’s cinnamon arroz con leche. An enterprising retiree, she sold the dish to locals near her home in Salinas, Calif., And kept some of it for Mr. Rico, who lived in Visalia. Although he got tired of Mexican cooking at home, “I was a treat for dessert,” he says. Arroz con leche reminded him of Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal, but with a deeper flavor.
So perhaps it comes as no surprise that the sleeper on the couple’s restaurant menu is Mexican and Iranian rice pudding with an absolutely unique taste – hot and smoky with spices, slightly sour with strawberry powder and infused with grains of rice that reveal the slightest chewing. The dish is not only delicious, but emblematic of their growing confidence in using the restaurant to explore the connections between the two cultures, with food that is rooted in tradition but aims to surprise.
Rice pudding was not part of their original vision. Mr. Rico, the chef, who worked at reputable restaurants like Son of a Gun and Trois Mec in Los Angeles before spending time in Mexico to learn regional cuisine, wanted the focus to be on tortillas made in the hand. He found rare heirloom corn varieties and made masa using the indigenous technique of nixtamalization, in which the dried kernels are cooked and soaked in an alkaline solution to soften them and make them easier to digest.
The couple also wanted to overturn people’s expectations of a taqueria, a format ubiquitous in Austin. “I didn’t want to have to be bound by some protein, cilantro and onion for it to be considered a taqueria,” Rico said. They therefore incorporated flavors from all over the world: carnitas with salsa cruda enriched with fish sauce; tuna tostadas sprinkled with furikake.
Nixta Taqueria opened in 2019 on East 12th Street in Austin in a small building painted blue, like Frida Kahlo’s home in Mexico City, with pink accents. The facade features a living mural of the Aztec corn god Centeotl by local artist Margaret Heidrick. The food received national acclaim: Nixta was included on Food & Wine’s 2020 list of Best New Restaurants.
At first, Ms. Mardanbigi, who runs the restaurant’s operations, often cooked Iranian food when she was homesick. The couple discovered similarities between Iranian and Mexican cuisines; for example, the sauce for fesenjan, a thick Iranian stew filled with nuts and pomegranate, looked somewhat like a mole. These conversations led to new dishes, like their “Persian mole” duck taco.
“Over time, we realized that this crossover made sense, and it’s really nothing that nobody does in Austin,” Ms. Mardanbigi said.
With so much focus on tacos, the couple paid little attention to the dessert menu, which was limited to a few flavors of paletas. But when the pandemic hit last March and Nixta’s business shifted mainly to take-out and delivery, Ms Mardanbigi and Mr Rico needed a candy that would travel well.
Mr. Rico’s first instinct was to recreate his grandmother’s arroz con leche, adding butter and egg yolks – as he learned to do at Trois Dudes to create an extra velvety consistency – as well as cream. Dessert was good, but it wasn’t special.
It was at this point that Mrs Mardanbigi suggested that he incorporate the flavors of sholeh zard. Immediately, Mr. Rico got to work merging his beloved childhood dish with his own – checking out YouTube videos and the parents of Ms. Mardanbigi, who grew up in Tehran.
“There were weeks where I was like, ‘This is great sholeh,’” Ms. Mardanbigi said, meaning too runny and too shaken. In traditional versions, the rice is so soft that it almost melts into the pudding. Mr. Rico decided to leave his grains a bit al dente, adding texture and making the dessert less dense. He uses arborio rice instead of the usual basmati because he likes light chewing.
He also swapped traditional rose water for a dusting of strawberry powder, to add similar floral notes and a touch of acidity. Mr. Rico said taking that first spoonful was “like unwrapping a gift,” the hot pink strawberry powder and verdant pistachio garnish contrasting starkly with the golden yellow pudding underneath. Despite the adjustments, the couple didn’t give the dish a hybrid name – it’s simply listed on the menu as Persian Rice Pudding (Sholeh Zard).
The flavors are vibrant, luxurious, and nostalgic, but the couple didn’t expect the dish to become as popular as it has. For many customers, it’s as exciting as tacos. It “definitely helped us find our voice,” said Mr. Rico, and helped them celebrate the exciting possibilities of food that is constantly evolving and doesn’t stay in the same lane.
Ms Mardanbigi summed up the experience of eating at Nixta: “You walk up to it, look at it, wait for it and bite into it, and these things shouldn’t work together but they do, and you don’t. mad at that.
Nixta Taqueria, 512-551-3855, 2512 East 12th Street, Austin, Texas, nixtataqueria.com
Recipe: Sholeh Zard (Persian rice pudding)